Number, Please

Still growing in use at the time, the telephone played a surprising role in the great influenza pandemic of 1918.

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It has turned out to be the de facto communication of COVID-19, a video tool called Zoom that invaded millions of homes right after government lockdown orders turned remote work into a routine experience. Competitors existed, but Zoom was so commonly used it quickly became a verb for the 21st century.

Ironically, the telephone of the 20th century was supposed to become the de facto answer to a different pandemic a hundred years ago. But unlike Zoom, the telephone, which represented the ultimate in the technology of its day, failed in its mission to keep people connected during the so-called Spanish flu, a nightmarish crisis that killed 675,000 Americans and more than 50 million people around the world. This technology had a critical human factor—and it could not be overcome.

Having been invented four decades earlier by Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone in 1918 was just emerging as the ubiquitous communications tool it would eventually become. At the time, only 35 percent of homes had phones, and to just complete a call, a human operator was required to plug in the call through a switchboard. “Number, please,” the operator would say after a caller lifted the phone mouthpiece. And nearly all of those operators were young women, who, under conventional wisdom in those days, were considered more reliable and respectable than young men. Interactions with callers were tightly scripted and monitored, and no fraternizing with the customer was tolerated.

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With World War I raging in Europe and the US finally entering the fight in 1918, the public’s attention was focused elsewhere. The Spanish flu (a misnomer since the flu originated at an army base in Kansas, not Spain) began its deadly course, and the country was taken by surprise. Medical experts were stumped and astonished at how fast it spread. People who felt fine in the morning were dead by lunchtime. Close quarters and crowded cities were fertile centers for the disease’s spread. People were urged to wear masks and stay indoors.

Isolated by social distancing, people turned to the telephone to speak to doctors, friends, and family members. This miraculous technology would allow people to stay connected while sheltering in place. During the pandemic, phone use spiked. In New York City, more than 3 million calls were made daily. But there was an immediate problem. The young women operators, crammed together side by side in tight quarters with hundreds of other operators, were just as susceptible, if not more so, to the deadly influenza outbreak. Thousands of operators got sick, and many thousands more stayed away from the crowded switchboards in hopes of avoiding the sickness.

“In cities, there was tremendous stress on those systems,” says John M. Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. “Phone companies were begging people to make only emergency calls because they were so short of personnel. When things closed down in 1918, it wasn’t like today. Not everyone had a phone and there was no television, no radio, and no Internet.”

On November 15, telephone operators in St. Paul, Minnesota, went on strike. The local newspapers reported that less than a third of the city’s new flu cases were being reported to the health department due to the telephone strike. That October in New York, more than 2,000 telephone operators, representing one-third of the workforce, got sick with the flu. New York Telephone was forced to cut service by 15 percent across the city and eliminate half of pay-phone usage.

Though human frailty subverted the telephone’s value during the pandemic, a broader lesson emerged. Once they had experienced the phone’s life-changing capabilities, people craved more, and the technology quickly became a ubiquitous necessity in nearly every home in the industrialized world. As its direct descendants, technologies like the smartphone and Zoom have become effective tools in coping with the current coronavirus pandemic. No operator required.

“Phone companies were begging people to make only emergency calls because they were so short of personnel.”